Meeting Monsieur Lebrec

I’ve been wondering how to address the terrible reputation the entire French population seems to enjoy in the mind of many an American. Having met so many wonderful, helpful people in France over the years, I’m kind of passionate about chipping away at this stigma. When comments are nothing but hearsay, or if the opinion is based entirely on treatment by a handful of tired waiters in Paris, I get the freaking heebie-jeebies.

Yes, okay, admittedly I’ve had the occasional run-in with a Capital Sourpuss too, but overall I’m happy to be an advocate for the bulk of the French population, and I’ve figured the only way to do that is to showcase their kindness one by one.

To begin this mission: the tale about a most wonderful experience that unexpectedly ticked two boxes off the ‘ole bucket list!

We have been in awe of the tremendous farms that rise from the green fields of Normandy like mysterious architectural gift boxes. Technically they are stronghold farms, gems of French architecture dating back to the end of the Hundred Years’ War, when there was an increase in prosperity while the effect of war left a weary population still seeking safety and protection.

Centuries later, many are in a state of disrepair while others are exquisitely restored. But no matter what state they’re in, caught somewhere between the status of castle and farm, they are simply stunning!

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a feature on the regional product of cider and Calvados, showing the production from apple blossom to bottling. And since the trees would soon be bursting with delicate pink-and-white petals, I needed to engage the owner of an apple orchard.

Along the Calvados coast, atop the magnificent Normandy cliffs somewhere between Omaha beach and Grandcamp-Maisy, stands an example of a manoir, or stronghold farm. A French and an American flag flying companionably beyond its imposing facade welcome you to taste its cider.

On one of our wonderful drives through the countryside, we decided to stop. We thundered over a drawbridge beneath an imposing archway not knowing what, exactly, to expect, and were met in the courtyard by the owner, Monsieur Bernard Lebrec …

… Who couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating! We were invited into the barn-turned-tasting-room where we were served the farm’s products while receiving a history of it and its role in World War II.

Monsieur Lebrec, an Earl according to the Internet, told us his grandfather had purchased the farm in 1920. It was taken by the Germans in the Occupation, then liberated in the days of the D-Day landings to become headquarters to the 147th Engineer Combat Battalion who turned the farm’s orchard into an airfield. The first-ever American war monument in France was built in the back garden—hence the flags!

He not only spoke passionately about the farm, but is a very engaged listener, genuinely moved by individual stories of liberation. Last year, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, one of the pilots who’d actively used the airstrip during the War, visited the farm and said he remembered the place vividly.

It’s no wonder. The structure is a brilliant example of architectural styles jammed together through the centuries. Its original four towers, dating back to the 10th Century, are still standing, and two are connected to the rest of the farm to form the defensive wall. I could only imagine these would have made fantastic playgrounds in the Earl’s youth, and with a crooked grin because the towers had been forbidden territory, he admitted as much.

In addition to the orchards (producing apple juice, the typical 4% Normandy cider, an aperitif blend of apple juice and brandy called Pommeau, and, of course, the 43%-put-hair-on-your-chest apple brandy called Calvados), Monsieur Lebrec has a small herd of cows, some fields of colza (rapeseed), and grass for haying.

On a whim I asked if he knew any farmers who had rapeseed fields that edged the sea whom I could possibly ask (read: beg) for permission to shoot some pictures.

To my great surprise, he not only said yes to allowing me to document the blossom-to-beverage process of the apples on his farm, but he gave us permission to traverse the orchard and a grass field, to take pictures of his colza which grew directly atop the Normandy cliffs!

It was a bucket-list dream come true! I’d always wondered what it would be like to stand there on those cliffs with a hand shielding my eyes, gazing into the blue horizon of the North Sea Channel. Taking pictures of the rapeseed against this backdrop, preferably with a stormy sky to boot, was also high on my amateur photography list of desires. Oh my!

We didn’t know quite what to expect but were told to walk through the apple trees and then to pick up the tractor tracks to follow all the way to the very steep cliff side. It was a beautiful walk, just short of a kilometer. At the end of it—quite literally because we were at the very edge of the cliffs—we stood there with very full hearts, quite in awe of the view.

Monsieur Lebrec had told us that any time he works those fields, he’ll stop the tractor and sit there to take it all in. How lucky he is! I think I’d forget the work and take an apple or two. How lucky he and his family are to live here.

And how lucky were we to have met him! I walked away from Ferme Ste Claire with beautiful shots to share and with a valuable life lesson to ponder.

When I made a comment about how huge an operation it all seemed and how hard he must be working to keep it all going, Monsieur Lebrec shrugged his wonderfully nonchalant French shoulders and replied:

“I wouldn’t call what I do work, but more that I’m occupying myself.”


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